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Armenian prayer scroll

This strikingly illustrated prayer scroll is written in Armenian, the language of the world's first Christian country. The picture of St Sargis on horseback would have provided protection for the 17th-century traveller carrying it.

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Armenian prayer scroll

Armenian Prayer Scroll or Amulet, Constantinople, 1655. Selection of prayers, St Sargis on horseback
BL Or. MS 14028
Copyright © The British Library Board

What does this scroll say and what is it for?

In almost all world religions there is a popular belief that amulets or charms worn on the body bring good luck and offer divine protection against evil, sickness, accident, or enemies.

Armenian travellers and pious people carried amulets such as this one, containing prayers by the early church Fathers, magical formulas, stories of healing and miracles from the Gospels, and prayers against sickness and for protection against spells.

New owners of such scrolls removed the name of the previous owner from the end of each prayer and substituted their own. This scroll was copied by 'the sinful Gasper for the servant of God Martiros.'

The text is illustrated with depictions of saints, angels and scenes from the life of Christ. The image here is of the victorious St Sargis, a general in the Persian army martyred during the reign of the Emperor Julian (r. 361-3).

Who is St Sargis?

In the Armenian Church, Sargis is a popular talismanic image. Traditionally shown riding a white charger, he will answer the call of those in distress and come to rescue them.

Sargis (or Sarkis) served as an army general during the reign of Constantine. According to legend, as head of armed forces for King Shapur of Persia, Sargis converted too many troops to Christianity for the heathen king's liking. Following an argument with the king, a fight broke out, during which Sargis's son Mardiros was killed, and Sargis seized and condemned to death.

His feast day, 63 days before Easter, is a kind of equivalent to Valentine's Day in Europe. The unmarried celebrate it by eating a piece of salty bread, so that the saint can reveal their future spouse to them in their dreams as the person who offers them a drink.

When did Christianity reach Armenia?

Christian communities have probably been active in Armenia - which lies to the east of Turkey - since 40AD. The country was the first in the world to adopt Christianity as its official religion, in 301. Christianity still plays a large part in the country's life and culture, though it is now constitutionally secular.

What alphabet is used in this prayer scroll?

The text on this prayer scroll is a compacted script form of the distinctive curvilinear shapes of the Armenian alphabet, devised in 405 by the Armenian monk Mesrop Mashtots (whose name appears below, written in Armenian script).
Mesrop Mashtots written in Armenian The invention of the alphabet was the beginning of Armenian literature, and has helped to reinforce both religious and national unity through Armenia's turbulent history.

Mesrop has another link with the contents of the scroll. He exhumed Sargis's body decades after his death (and after it had already been exhumed and moved once). Mesrop moved it to Garpi, erecting a monastery - which still stands - on the site.